5 Approaches to the Study of Political Theory – Feminist Tradition

Lakshmi Radhakrishnan

epgp books


Module: Feminism


Political theory has been enriched with multiple approaches and traditions that tend to analyse and understand politics in different and often contradictory ways. This paper is a broad overview of feminist approaches/traditions in political theory.


Jane Mansbridge and Susan Moller Okin (2007: 333) refer to feminism as a political stance and not a systematic theory, inextricably linked with political change. Another characteristic of feminist theory, they cite, is its experiential plurality. The challenge to public/private dichotomy when feminism politicizes the personal, the standpoints of women belonging to different cultures, sexualities, etc makes feminist theory rich with diversity and plurality. Yet, like many feminist theorists, Mansbridge and Okin identify a larger overarching goal for feminist theory:


Throughout its plurality, feminism has one obvious, simple and overarching goal – to end men’s systematic domination of women. Feminist theory also has one overarching goal – to understand, explain and challenge that domination, in order to help end it 333).


Feminism, therefore is enriched with different viewpoints, standpoints and epistemologies that also reflect multiplicity of feminist ontologies. It will be more judicious to use ‘feminisms’ in place of feminism in the current circumstances. An early classification of feminism was given by Alison Jaggar (1983)- liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, socialist feminism and radical feminism. While liberal feminism applies the liberal notions of equality, equal rights, liberty and the idea of a neutral state for the cause of women’s liberation, Marxist feminists relied especially on classical Marxism’s accusation of private property as the root cause of women’s subordination, as reflected in Engels’ Origin of Family, State and Private Property. Radical feminism often claims to be the ‘unmodified’ 1 feminism not wedded to any other political ideology and that brings gender and patriarchy to the centre of its analysis. Radical feminism perceives patriarchy as a totality, permeating every institution and space, and as a universal category. Patriarchy here is a structure that renders women’s agency meaningless. For example,


1 See MacKinnon (1987).


MacKinnon (1987) argues that women’s engagement in heterosexual sex never manifests true consent or agency in patriarchy; therefore the right question to ask is not if women have the agency to have sex. On the contrary, women’s right to refuse sex is the real mark of agency in the current patriarchal system founded on sexual subordination of women. Socialist feminists try to combine capitalism and patriarchy as the twin pillars of women’s oppression. They thus engage with issues of production as well as reproduction.2 In course of time, we hear of different strands of feminism – psychoanalytic feminism, cultural feminism, ecofeminism, lesbian feminism, Islamic feminism, Third World feminism, relational feminism, etc. Hackett and Haslanger (2002) speak of three variants- sameness feminism, difference feminism and dominance feminism. Sameness feminism is based on articulation of women’s rights and liberties based on a common or same humanity as men- which could lead to a negation of sexual difference; while difference feminism affirms biological and social differences of women (e.g connection/care feminism). Ruddick’s ‘maternal peace’3 and Carol Gilligan’s ‘moral reasoning’ and ‘ethic of care’ are examples. Dominance approach perceives sexual difference itself as an effect or product of dominance. It thus condemns the non-equivalence of differences attributed to men and women. As Kymlicka puts it, “Whereas the difference approach says that sex inequality is only justified if there are real differences between men and women, the dominance approach says that sex differences (real or imagined) must never be used as a source of, or justification for, inequality and male domination (Kymlicka 2001: 383). Judith Squires (2000) makes a three-fold classification- feminisms which are based on equality, difference and displacement of differences. Dominance and displacement approaches therefore also call for a redefinition of male and female roles rather than mere equality of opportunity. Feminists like Elizabeth Gross (1986) therefore claim that feminist theory and politics is not about equality but of autonomy.


Another way of classifying feminism is by a timeline- ‘first wave’, ‘second wave’, ‘third wave’ and postfeminism (see Bryson 2003; Gamble 2001)4. Broadly, first wave feminism stood for


2 See Eisenstein (1989), Mitchell (1984).

3 Sara Ruddick argues that women’s capacity to be mothers develops in them an instinct to be peaceful and

to pursue peace. Gilligan argues that women have a different moral reasoning than men that is based on care

and relational subjectivity unlike the male obsession with autonomy, rights and justice that separate human

beings from one another- women speak in a ‘different voice’ (Ruddick 1989; Gilligan 1982).

4 Most texts refer to first wave and second wave , while many also refer to postmodernism as a third wave

(Vincent 2009). Some others like Sarah Gamble (2001) use the concept of postfeminism to denote the

postmodern wave in feminism. This timeline also reflects only the dominant foci. For example, 1990s were

increasingly the period of equality of rights for women and men; second wave represented the radical

feminist movement that essentialised a universal category of women and the victimhood of women. Janice

McLaughlin (2003: 1) underscores the feminist contribution to thought as such:


An important target in each wave was highlighting the inability of established social and political thought to respond to the oppression of women. Feminist thought has always sought to engage with and reinterpret the foundations of the theoretical frameworks it coexists with and at times draws from.


A basic task of feminist approach to political theory is the attack on male-dominance and the ‘maleness’ of ‘malestream’ theories. Feminism attacks almost every political tradition especially liberalism and Marxism for the gender bias internal to these theories whose fundamental proposition is equality of all human beings. A dominant way in which this was pursued is by challenging the dichotomy between the public and private. Mainstream political theory including Rawls’ theory of justice mainly addressed the status of individuals in the public realm, ignoring the power dynamics in the private (see Coole 1988; Okin 1981 ; Pateman 1980). Pateman, for example, throws light on how social contact theories including Rawls’ is primarily a contract between men or male-headed families that are treated as ‘natural’ or biologically determined; the contract therefore does not include the sexual contract within families that is unequal. Okin similarly contends that Rawls’ social contract behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ is ‘genderless’; but the rules of justice do not apply to the private realm, for the family’s sentimental ties are deemed by mainstream theorists as incompatible with the traits of public life. Eva Kittay (1999) further points out how Rawls ignores the care functions performed by women in family. Thus while early liberals like Mill explicitly denied application of justice to sexual division of labour in the family, contemporary liberals like Rawls implicitly assume the naturalness of this division of labour. Liberalism by and large neglected family and accepted the division of public and private spheres; equality is mainly a matter for liberals and to a large extent for liberal feminism in the feminist postmodernism but we also see the works of liberal feminists like Anne Phillips, Nussbaum, Okin and others who question the traditional liberal terrain but yet retain liberalism as a potent weapon for gender justice. Vincent (2009: 175) contends that these liberal feminists are more Rawls- inspired than influenced by natural rights or liberal utiliatarianism.


public domain5 (see Kymlicka 2001). Family and the private therefore becomes an important axis of sexual inequality, prompting Pateman to argue that feminism is all about the private /public binary (see Kymlicka 2001: 387).6 The same subversive role of feminist theory can be seen in postmodern feminism and other representatives of the ‘third wave’ like black feminism. For example, Luce Irigaray responds to ‘logocentrism’ by also exposing the ‘phallocentrism’-male closure in language (see Vincent 2009: 179). Irigaray’s la parler femme (women’s speech) and Cixous’ ecriture feminine (women’s writing) are examples of feminist subversion to problematise linguistic patriarchy (ibid: 180).


This demonstrates the difficulty in systematizing feminism into one approach or epistemology. As Kymlicka (2001: 377) notes, the issue of diversity is multiplied in the case of feminism since almost every other theory is represented within feminism. Feminism as also interacted with different historical traditions and as interacted and overlapped with different ideologies (Vincent 2009: 172). Also feminism lacks definitional consensus ranging from the focus on improving women’s position to sexual justice to removal of systemic discrimination to postmodernists who problematise the idea of a definition (see Vincent 2009).


Notwithstanding the wide diversities and contradictions within feminism, feminist political theory raises three central questions: “‘How did male domination arise?’, ‘Why was it so widely accepted?’ and ‘What are its consequences?” (Mansbridge and Okin 2007: 334-5). In doing so, feminist political theory is subversive in nature. From the early feminists who tried to distinguish biological sex from a socially and culturally constructed category of gender, to feminist postmodernists who complicate the sex/gender distinction with the argument that ‘perhaps sex was always gender’7, from radical feminists who believe in the universal victimhood of women


5 Jaggar (1989) argues that the liberal principle of the private as a sphere of autonomy and privacy, to be

protected from state intervention often makes it difficult for liberalism feminism to make a case for state

intervention in the private to challenge inequalities in terms of reproductive relations, sexual choice,

domestic work, etc.

6 Pateman (1987) contends that public/private is not the only distinction in liberalism. Other distinctions

include state/society, social/political ; freedom/coercion; economy/politics, etc. What is common to all of

them is that they are dichotomies “within the world of men”. Women in these distinctions belong to neither

side, for their ‘natural’ place is the home or family (Pateman, in Kymlicka 2001: 107).

7 Butler (1989, 1999) argues that even sex is socially constructed. It is constructed on the basis of the ‘idea’ of

a male and female body that are requisites for heteronormativity in the ‘heterosexual matrix’. Foucault’s

discussion of the determination of the sex of Herculine Barbine depending on sexual orientations is another

example of attributing sex to bodies.


to black feminists and Islamic feminists who bring forth the notion of ‘interlocking’ and multiple oppressions, feminism destabilizes accepted categories in political theory including rationality, agency, and human subjectivity.

you can view video on Approaches to the Study of Political Theory – Feminist Tradition